Eclectic Reader: Read like a writer

Calla & Édourd by Kathryn MacDonald, an excerpt

This novella, set in Eastern Ontario, bubbles with the details of everyday life. The cycle of the season is reflected in the lives of the central characters. It is a hymn/lament for that which is passing and that which is past. (Alistair MacLeod, author of two collections of short stories: The Lost Salt Gift of Blood and Island; and the award-winning novel: No Great Mischief, cover copy)

Calla & Édourd cover
Hidden Brook Press (HBP); ISBN 978-1-897475-39-3; 2009

It is a sad day when a book goes out of print. After ten years, this is the fate of my novella, all 23,000+ words, 129 pages.

From readers, Calla & Édourd garnered comments such as, “I was hooked after having read only the preface (as well as the entire book that same evening) [L.S.]. “I could see everything like a movie running through my head” [P.C.]. “I loved the explanation of perfection for Édourd on page 96 and the stories ‘…steeped in the tea of superstition and Catholicism’” [G.M.].

Chapter 1 begins:

Calla moves like a wave, from tree to tree, down the steep incline toward the water’s edge. Her left arm wrapping itself around rough-barked trunks. Her feet, beneath deep snow, searching for secure footing. Downward. Down to a spot where the water bubbles every day of the year from a silent, hidden spring.

Overhead, the sound of squabbling breaks the quiet. Lifting her face to the sky, Calla’s eyes find two black-capped chickadees. They slip from the sky to a tree branch where they hop over each other, reminding Calla of childhood games of leapfrog. The birds move along the branch away from the trunk before flying westward, their voices becoming lost in the distance. The momentary stillness soon fills with the rapid rat-tat-tatting of a downy woodpecker. It circles a birch tree; its head bobbing rhythmically; its black and white feathers blending into the birch. Without the movement, it would seem invisible.

Calla continues carefully downward, testing with her feet for buried rocks and broken branches beneath the snow. Slowly, she moves toward the white-crusted marsh. The red-winged blackbirds, that months ago perched on cattails, had now flown south, leaving the brown expanse of stalks and tails deserted.

The story begins when Calla is in the early throws of dementia. Then the backstory unfolds with innocence and love, the birth of children and their growing up and leaving home. But the unraveling of Calla’s mind cannot be avoided and takes a toll.

If you’re curious about the reference made by G.M. to the “perfection” passage:

Ah, but expectations of perfection was not something that plagued Édourd. He had grown in the shadow of Papa, a man shaped by the realities of the seasons and he knew that perfection came only masked as miracles. Perfection came with dark-bottomed cumulus clouds carrying rain in spring and with a clear dawn during haying season. It presented itself in the shifting colours as goldfinch feathers changed from drab olive to sunshine yellow, also in spring. Similar magic arrived with the return of the mallards, and shortly afterward, the arrival of ducklings in the marsh. Whether a miracle appeared to satisfy survival or to cause his spirit to leap, Édourd welcomed them like he had welcomed Papa’s stories.

In addition to Alistair MacLeod, Evelyn Bowering wrote cover copy: “Drawing their sustenance from past generations, Calla and Édourd’s love endures when traumatic loss gives way to fragmentation of memory, and past, present and future merge into one. MacDonald creates word paintings of nature and domestic life that linger after the last word is read. This is a beautiful story.”

I blush at the praise and thank everyone who bought books and a special thank you to those who sent their thoughts to me.

I am grateful to my publisher, Richard (Tai) Grove, Hidden Brook Press for taking the risk of publishing my first fiction. At that time, Tai was a new publisher and I was largely untried. We’ve both learned a lot in the intervening ten years.

Thank you for indulging my journey down memory lane.

Please share your experiences of publishing your first fiction and your thoughts if your book, like mine, has slipped out of print.

 

 

River of Hidden Dreams by Connie May Fowler: Book Review

This island is far more full of life than I had thought. Animals I cannot name are beginning to make themselves known. I hear twigs snap, and cries filter now and again from woods to sky. I wrap up tighter and try to concentrate on Mama and Mima. I think of that day Mr. Sammy decided he had turned old. His sudden despair and Miss Raison’s drowning weren’t the only life-changing events in the forest hideaway that stormy afternoon. Mima conceived my mother in the middle of all that lightning and rain (186-7).

I often buy used books from volunteers staffing “Friends of the Library” shop at the entrance to Belleville’s library. This is where I found River of Hidden Dreams by Connie May Fowler. (Purchases support our public library and often great finds can be made.)

I picked the book up because of the cover – a photograph that I might have been smitten to take – an egret in long, marshy grasses. The narrative, which identifies as fiction, is dedicated to two women who seem very much like two characters in the story. However, the blurb on the dust jacket almost put me off – romance (the romantic, not the historic variety). Nevertheless, I was drawn in.

Fowler’s book reminds me a little of Everything Under by Daisy Johnson, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize (2018). What the two books share is a boat on a river, water that hides mysteries and danger, and consciousness more surreal than real. Johnson’s story is far more complex and more beautifully executed…and much more surreal and daring. But Fowler’s story was published 24 years earlier. Johnson’s story centres on the intricate relations of a mother and daughter; Fowler’s focuses on a woman’s memories of her mother, grandmother and grandfather who tell their own stories. To my mind, the intervention of Carlos and a mummified baby spoil what might have been a much more interesting tale.

River of Hidden Dreams fought with me (or I with it). I threatened to toss it aside. Then I turned the page again. The orneriness of the grandmother and granddaughter parallel became a bit too much…but then I continued reading. The handsome, perfect, prince-charming Carlos is polar-opposite of his miserable, mean Mamacita/Saidie. Perhaps someone told the author, “you’d better include a love object and sex.” Still, the pages kept turning.

What works: Mr. Sammy, the trawler, the river, the Everglades, and the ancestors speaking their own stories for the eerie, jarring, sensuous impact. Fowler’s descriptions held me enchanted. I slipped into her river-world where time became untethered. The story may have happened last century or last year; it doesn’t matter. I felt its immediacy, its reality in a surreal kind of way.

River of Hidden Dreams by Connie May Fowler has earned my toughest review. Now that it’s written, I’ve checked what others have said…and everyone loved everything about it. Now you might want to read the novel and make up your own mind. Do let me know…please.

71 River of Hidden Dreams

Available through your local bookstore or online: River of Hidden Dreams

(The hardcover is listed for Cdn $248.72 – you may want to visit your library to borrow a copy.)

Three poems: excerpts from A Breeze You Whisper

I read the whole thing all at once…each poem made me want to read the next one, and then, it was over, leaving me wanting more. [] I was totally entranced. MacDonald’s work is sensual, moving. She plays with words….The poet takes us off the page and into her mind and heart, into our own minds and hearts and beyond. (Amazon review)

Book-NSKathrynMacDonald-ABreezeYouWhisper
ISBN 978-1-897475-66-9; Hidden Brook Press (HBP); 2011

The majority of the poems in the collection are in print for the first time, but some were previously published, including these three. The cover was created by the publisher from one of my photographs of a luna moth; the ink-brush drawings are also my creations. The book is divided into six sections: East; South; West; North; Above & Below.

“Earth,” was originally published in Ascent Aspirations Magazine (2007):

EARTH

Worms wiggle through soil
and at the end of the robin’s beak.

Ants build labyrinthine passageways
and a room fit for a queen’s eggs.

Below the raspberries
a brown field mouse curls in her nest.

Away from the garden path
under the evergreen rabbits burrow.

My fingers reach for weedy roots
find mysteries buried deep.

Gravity hold more than loam
to its stony heart.

East section pg 1

“City Hunter” was originally published in Descant (1981; a prestigious literary journal that published from 1970-2015):

CITY HUNTER

I watched the jazz man
reach through his horn
felt his mellow
breath caress my ears.
His dancing fingers
pushed the air
around the
room
rippling waves
of smoke
broke against
my flesh
the current
pulling toward his
plunging
centre.

He soared and
fell
catching his prey
in the quiet
echo
of his rhythm.

Above & Below section pg 107

The third poem that I’m sharing with you from the collection A Breeze You Whisper is titled “Migration.” It was first published in Northward Journal (under a pen name: Deneau; 1981; Penumbra Press).

MIGRATION

He watched fear
enter her eyes
as she bellied
through the prairie grasses.
He imagined
the pressure
against
her fleshy triangle as
the grasses pushed
between her legs.
Snaking forward, she,
initiation offering,
would clamp him
in her hairy, circular
trap
and devour
his hunger until the
fear leaped into
his eyes.
Slowly he watched the
seeds sown in her belly
swell.
His ear upon her naval
listening
to drums and gurgling
streams
to thundering hoof beats and
rustling grasses.
From the fissure sprung
the red waters
as the migrating herds
returned.

I thought perhaps after reading my reviews, you might be curious what kind of poetry I write. I would love to learn what you think of these poems, and if you’ve read the book, what you think of it.

Available online: A Breeze You Whisper.

(The caption is a quote from the book review on Amazon.)

The Wrecking Light by Robin Robertson: Book Review

I find a kind of hope here, in this / homelessness, in this place / where no one knows me – / where I’ll be gone, like some / over-wintering bird, / before they even notice. (Beginning to Green)

The poet searches: for his shadow-self, for grief and guilt, and for life and meaning. In The Wrecking Light, Robin Robertson moves into the past, sheds light onto the present, and shape-shifts between reality and the surreal.

In the first section, Silvered Water, the first poem, “Album,” sets a tone that echoes throughout the collection. It begins:

I am almost never there, in these
old photographs: a hand
or shoulder, out of focus; a figure
in the background,
stepping from the frame.

(…)

A ghost is there; the ghost gets up to go.

The Wrecking Light is full of memories that include memories of others: the girl / with the hare lip / down by Clachan Bridge (“By Clachan Bridge”). And the collection ends with the personal memory of “Hammersmith Winter” when through the drawn curtain / shines the snowlight I remember as a boy, / sitting up at the window watching it fall. Mixed with memories is a sense of grieving, as in “Fall From Grace:”

My life a mix of dull disgraces
and watery acclaim, my daughters know
I cannot look into their clear faces;
what shines back at me is shame.

The theme continues. In “Tinsel,” in the woods: If you’re very quiet, you might pick up loss: or rather / the thin noise that losing makes – perdition. / If you’re absolutely silent. And with loss comes leaving. The very next poem, “Leaving St. Kilda,” takes us on a sea journey brimming with geographic details and clear images cut clean by departure. In this geographical catalogue: sea rhythm; progression.

But don’t get the wrong idea, these poems are neither nostalgic nor maudlin. In the skillful hands of this visionary, we are taken on a raucous ride with unexpected twists and turns.

In the second section called Broken Water, the first poem’s horror and the brutal honesty of rough island life and penance is laid bare. In “Law of the Island” Robertson paints a vivid description of island punishment and the casualness of its deployment. In this section, he gives us a back-and-forth of short poems with punch and longer, exploratory ones where he writes after Ovid, Neruda, Baudelaire, and myth to understand humanity’s weaknesses. Here, “Grave Goods,” is beyond surreal; it enters magic.

In the third section, Unspoken Water, the woods and forests of childhood again dominate. In “The Wood of Lost Things,” the vision is clearer and in its clarity, more haunting. Robertson writes: I have found the place I wasn’t meant to find (…)

Hung on a silver birch, my school cap
and satchel; next to them, the docken suit,
and next to that, pinned to a branch,
my lost comforter –
a piece of blanket worn to the size of my hand.

 You can see how he leads us. Like Narcissus he sees a face I seem to know. But unlike Narcissus, he isn’t struck by his beauty. Of course not. But he does give us a resolution (of sorts).

In The Wrecking Light, there is much of the sea, of woods, of love and loss, of searching. I return to the final poem, “Hammersmith Winter,” and the poet’s final plea: Look at the snow, / I said, to whoever might be near, I’m cold, / would you hold me. Hold me. Let me go.

Robin Robertson has written an intense, lyrical collection with movement as through dreams bordering on nightmare (I dare not use the word haunting again, although that is the effect his writing creates). This is Robertson’s forth book of poetry; I recommend you enter his world.

70 The Wrecking Light

Available through your local bookstore or online: The Wrecking Light

Choreography: a poem

Frigate birds soar skyward / become specks of dust in the blue / before slow spirals…

On September 24, 2019, Amethyst Review published “Choreography.”

Choreography

            by Kathryn MacDonald

Frigate birds soar skyward
become specks of dust in the blue
before slow spirals toward sea
their wingspan increasing
split tails          like swallows gliding
aerial grace          becoming
kites on currents
floating on aqua ripples.
Sunshine warms bare legs
spread for balance on the foredeck
eyes shielded against glare
while becoming other
shedding feathers and scales
until reaching the centre
and all drops away.

 

Sailboats and frigate birds 2018-12-21 #008 sm (1 of 1)
Sailboats and frigate birds (Isla Mujeres, Yucatan, Mexico)

Check out Amethyst Review and the FB page. Please share the links with your friends.

Bone Antler Stone by Tim Miller: Book Review

In every real way, the ring was placed here / the ring of now pock-marked, planetary stone (…) but the landscape was first, the stones only our / attempt at echo and veneration. (The Ring of Brodgar)

Tim Miller collapses 30,000 years of archaeology into a poetry collection that feels the thrill of immediate experience. He stirs a bit of magic, weaving it into the facts of what we know from long-past history.

In “Chauvet, Lascaux, Altamira” (France and Spain, 35,000 – 12,000 BC), Miller writes: Now we come to paint with light and fire. In this seven-part poem, we go beyond the images and enter the process of painting them:

A bison made with his hands, white hands dipped in red
And palms slapped on cold rock again and again,
Smacked hands turned or righted or angles
And his exhausted step back to see
The animal made only of red palms and rock,
Red like bison’s blood, stone vitality,
His awe at a heartbeat behind the wall,
And his hands red as a midwife’s.

The poet does not stand back, merely to look in wonder and awe, although the mystery inherent in that is present. He manages intimacy and time dissolves.

Lines jump off the page, lines like The sun sets into the sea and is doused / and rises with the sound of reborn flame / rolling into another red morning. The title, “The Sun Sets into the Sea” is incantatory, hypnotic. Doing the work of a chant, it carries us to the sea and the sun, which so many peoples worshipped.

The landscape, too, is revealed as it reveals burials of the long dead. In “Long Barrows,” graves become humps…in the landscape, / small rises like murmurs. The collapsing of then and now runs throughout the collection as it does in:

Horses and Cows on Orkney

Horses curled in the flaming spiral of sleep,
The huge immensity of their bodies
Belied by the blankets they wear, or the
Tight scroll they twist themselves into on the ground,
A
n enormity suddenly made small
Or at least passive, compact, the coiled braid
Of body closer to tree or landscape,
The tilted, chiseled head nearer to stone
Or to steel or something pulled from the fire,
Some monument to just how this place works,
That you do not escape the wind, but dream in it.

And this would not be a “prehistory” collection if the goddesses were not brought forth. “Female Figurines” begins with the urgency of poetic catalogue, an incantation:

Hum the words with me and you might understand:
Mammoth ivory, hematite, limestone,
Black jet, soapstone, antler and fired clay –
All of these become our bodies because
Our bodies are the place of becoming.

Tim Miller stirs the imagination. His narrative poems in Bone Antler Stone breathe life into the archeological past of Europe. Now my heart yearns for poetic translation of “New World” prehistory.

69 Bone Antler Stone

Available through your local bookstore or online: Bone Antler Stone

A personal note:
Reading “Female Figurines” (Bone Antler Stone), I walked over to a display table in my sitting area and picked up a cast replica of the Goddess of Willendorf, a gift of my professor of Art and Archeology. In that course, Professor Leonard Kroon insisted we experience art. I did two things: first, I visited the petroglyph site at Rice Lake, lay on the shamanic rock and listened to the earth gurgling through a slanted crack (out of that experience came a poem, “Migration,” which is included in A Breeze You Whisper) and I carved a hawk from a block of soapstone. Although I didn’t know it at the time, the red-tailed hawk would become a motif in later poems. That aside, I cradled the Willendorf figure – both tiny as my palm and monumental – and felt magic through the rotund Lilliputian goddess before returning to Miller’s poems.

For more about my writing, please see “About”

Past Midnight: poem

“The lines cast off / we glide….”

In August, Amethyst Review published “Past Midnight.”

 

PAST MIDNIGHT
by Kathryn MacDonald

The lines cast off
we glide through still water
insistent weeds
and water lily leaves.

We slip past sailboats
held fast to docks
by tendrils of black or white
blue or red          lines like thoughts
tethered to mourning and borders.

We venture into the other world
beyond safe harbour
and sense some things
have changed forever.

 

I’d love to know what you think of Past Midnight (and please “share” the link — Amethyst Review deserves reading).

 

Ducks in mist-PEC-sm (1 of 1)
Leaving safe harbour in heavy mist. (The photograph “Zen Serenity” was selected for a juried show, 2018.)